Oral History Tips

1.DO be extremely familiar with your tape recorder before you begin. You should know exactly what each button does and not take up valuable interview time figuring it out.

2. DO put a formal introduction on the tape. Include your name, the name of the person that you are interviewing, the day's date, the location of the interview, and why you are interviewing the person, if appropriate. Labels fall off of tapes and this ensures that you and future generations will know what's on it.

3. DO work from an outline rather than a set of formal questions. You need to allow yourself some flexibility, realizing that each interview is a unique exchange with a unique individual.

4. DO ask open-ended questions. These are questions that require more than a yes-or-no question. For example, asking, "How did you feel about American food?" gives the respondent much more room to talk than asking "Did you like American food at first?" They can answer that yes or no, end of conversation. Variation: one possible tack can be simple "Tell me about your first experience with American food." That opens up wide realms of possible answers.

5. DO ask follow-up questions. As you are receiving broad answers, be listening for the "holes" in the information--details that you'll want later. You may especially want to ask "where" and "when" questions to document events carefully. And of course, you'll always want to know "why."

It's important to let the interviewee know that you're listening. Many people do this by making little sounds or phrases known as feedback. Lots of interviewers will simply say "uh-huh" or "I see"--neutral statements that don't indicate agreement or disagreement. Sometimes interviewers are so eager to build rapport that they sound like they're agreeing with something they don't. Nodding silently also an option. "I understand" is sometimes useful, sometimes not. BUT feedback is usually essential.

6. DON'T ask leading questions--those that indicate to your interviewee how you want her/him to respond. An example of a leading question would be, "I think Americans are friendly. Don't you think so?" Such a question puts the interviewee in the awkward position of having to agree or disagree with you.

7. DON'T insert your own opinions onto the tape. This is not your interview. Try to keep "chatting" on tape to a minimum, too.

8. DON'T argue with your interviewee, ever. There is no faster way to lose an interview.

9. DO pay close attention to your interviewee's answers. Many new interviewers are so worried about the next question that their minds are racing ahead rather than attending to the subject at hand. Don't worry if your questions are not immediately on the tip of your tongue. They don't have to be worded beautifully; in fact, sometimes it's better if they're not, because that gives the interviewee the message that her/his answers don't have to be worded perfectly, either.

10. DO use silence to elicit more information. When your interviewee seems to have exhausted her/his answer, just sit quietly for a few moments. Chances are excellent that the interviewee will think of something else to say. (This is a hard rule to get used to. We tend to be uncomfortable with silence.)

11. DON'T interrupt your interviewee unless it's absolutely essential. Remember, tape is cheap, and it's better to let the person run on than it is to cut them off. Besides, sometimes the "rabbits" that they chase are more interesting than their main stories.

12. DON'T let the tape run out at the end of your cassette. Take the time to stop the interview and turn the tape over rather than just continuing to talk while the tape is off. It's very frustrating trying to reconstruct what was said while the tape was being switched.

13. DO take into account the interviewee's age, physical condition, et cetera, when deciding how long to continue the interview. Many elderly people fade after about an hour. (Many interviewers do, too.)

14. DO keep in mind the larger purposes of history while you're interviewing. As grandiose as that sounds, it just means to remember that others may have use for this material after you're through with it. So try to record for posterity, keeping in mind the needs of future researchers (which are, of course, impossible to know). Likewise, you should strongly consider depositing your tapes in an appropriate library or archives. This serves two purposes: one, it makes the interviews available to a wide audience, and others can verify your uses of oral sources.

15. DO always bear in mind that the interviewee is doing you a favor in sharing information. So mind your manners: show up on time, always be polite, send a thank-you note after it's over. If the person is especially helpful to you, you may want to consider giving her/him a copy of the tape.

16. DO label your tape carefully,.even though it's a challenge to get information on a cassette label. Include the names of the interviewees and interviewers, the date, the location, the length of the interview and how many tapes you used (1 hr., 20 minutes; tape 1 of 2; recorded on both sides). Be sure to punch the tabs out on top of the tape to avoid accidental erasure.

17. DO relax and enjoy your interview. You are involved in creating a primary source document with a person who deserves to have her/his story told. And remember that interviewing gets easier with practice.